The open question of Afghanistan
By Walter Pincus,
President Obama this week has a chance to explain to President Hamid Karzai, and hopefully to the American people, what will be our future role in Afghanistan.
Most speculation has focused on how rapidly the remaining 60,000-plus U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn and how many will be permanently assigned there after 2014. But as the U.S. financial belt is being tightened, people want to know the financial cost, for how long and what will be accomplished.
The fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act contains $4.7 billion for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), an amount that the U.S. government can’t continue to expend. The House-Senate conferees on the bill, realizing that Afghan support must be reduced, called for an independent study of what size the ANSF should be to make certain that Afghanistan will not again serve as a training camp for terrorists. The Afghans cannot support the security forces that the United States and its allies have created. That means Washington will have to pay or get others to join in future funding of Kabul’s forces.
“There are no public U.S. plans that show how the Obama administration will deal with either the civil or military aspects of this transition between now and the end of 2014, or in the years that follow,” Anthony H. Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last week. A former Pentagon official who has closely followed the 10- year war in Afghanistan, Cordesman questioned recent Pentagon statements of continuing successes, saying his reading of official reports shows “there has been no meaningful military progress since the end of 2010.”
He also wrote, “The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have never issued a remotely credible report on the progress and impact of the civilian surge or any aspect of the civil aid program.”
The real issue, Cordesman said, “is the future size of the civil-military effort, not the military effort alone. Any debate or analysis of the future U.S. role in Afghanistan that does not tie the two together is little more than intellectual and media rubbish.”
High on the Obama-Karzai agenda is a status-of-forces or similar agreement that would authorize a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Discussions have been underway since November. One has to only look back at Iraq to see the pitfalls that may arise before the two sides can reach such an agreement. Not the least is getting an Afghan-U.S. guarantee over which country will exercise criminal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel and under what circumstances.
Karzai, who is set to give up the presidency next year, has his own wish list that seems to include a long-term U.S. presence, but under Afghan terms. He has a list that “he has enumerated for months in public speeches, including accusations that the United States has fomented corruption in Afghanistan and continues to violate the country’s sovereignty,” according to The Washington Post’s Kabul correspondent Kevin Sieff.
One of Karzai’s favorite subjects is the U.S. approval of contracts “with [Afghan] warlords who use the money for their own gains,” according to his spokesman, Aimal Faizi. While one of the U.S. complaints about the Afghan government is its corruption, Karzai has repeatedly said that corruption is “imposed on us, and it is meant to weaken our system.”
A glance at the contracts awarded or offered in the first week of January shows how deeply committed the U.S. operation is in Afghanistan.
Construction contracts alone awarded last week totaled $41.3 million to build various facilities for elements of the ANSF and other government agencies. The largest was for $14.2 million to build a national fire training academy near Kabul that would be “for a population of 350 personnel to include students, instructors, mentors, administration and support staff,” according to the award notice.
Also awarded were contracts to construct a $3.4 million Afghan Border Police headquarters in Farah province; a $3.3 million Class B fire station for the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Ghor province; a $4.3 million expansion of Afghan army facilities in Helmand province; a $5.6 million supply facility for the ANP in Baghlan province; a $6.8 million expansion of facilities for the Afghan army and air force combined wing in Kandahar province; and $3.8 million to expand facilities at Camp Zafar in Herat province, which I wrote about last week.
New contracts also were in the offing. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking a contractor to upgrade the Afghan army’s Khair Khot garrison in Paktika province. The work, to involve 25 structures, would include “a new compound for a Transient Kandak [Afghan battalion of about 600], an Operations Coordination Center, additional barracks and latrines for existing units already fielded, two literacy training classrooms and utility upgrades,” according to the government notice.
Remember, this was just the first week in January, and the United States is planning to be in Afghanistan 51 more weeks this year. It would be much better for Obama and Karzai to end their meeting with a specific list of what exactly will be involved rather than empty words saying they will continue to support each other in the fight against terrorists.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.